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July 27, 2021

The West’s response to autocracies needs to be made of more than just sanctions and outrage

By Robert Amsterdam

When dealing with autocracies, the West reaches too quickly for the blunt tool of sanctions, or the threat of military intervention. It is time for us to upgrade our language regarding the wide variety of non-Western states and force ourselves to think more critically, better understand nuance, and work harder on coming up with solutions

On 23 May, a commercial Ryanair flight flying from Athens to Vilnius was threatened by a Belarussian fighter jet, forcing it to land in Minsk so that the Lukashenko regime could arrest a 26-year-old opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich.

The sheer brazenness of this act of state-sponsored hijacking left many European leaders without adequate words. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised consequences in response to ‘the outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus’.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said: ‘We strongly condemn the Lukashenko regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist.’

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, the CEO of PEN America, a leading freedom of expression NGO, characterised the hijacking as part of a broader trend by ‘other authoritarian states’ seeking to pursue their opponents abroad, lopping Belarus into a category alongside China, Iran, Russia, Rwanda and even Israel.

Here it becomes apparent that we have a language problem when it comes to dealing with non-Western states. Political leaders and the media now use terms like ‘authoritarian’ and ‘autocratic’ in ways that deprive the terminology of any useful meaning.

Even worse, this usage can appear to suggest there may be some uniform way to deal with the problems posed, when in fact each country has its own unique dynamics and limitations which constrain the decisions of their leaders.

I describe this as ‘the mythology of authoritarianism’, the process by which we simplify and reduce our understanding of a non-Western state by presuming an unfathomable level of personal power lying in the hands of a single individual, while ignoring the vulnerabilities of the system surrounding him or her.

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A belief in this mythology makes it simple and binary for Western institutions to simply denounce, complain and brush over without much critical thought. Most often this then leads to discussion or implementation of sanctions, which in most cases do very little to change the conduct of the bad actor.

This, of course, is also a highly convenient mindset for the dictator.

When the Western establishment perpetuates the image that these leaders rule by fear – that they can do anything by terrorising their citizens with violence and jail, cutting them o from the rest of the world – the myth casts a much longer shadow than their actual power would grant them.

This approach also appears blind to the ways in which autocratic states have shifted their tactics away from the use of mass violence, ideological indoctrination and closed borders as means to monopolise power.

Instead, as the academics Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman argue in a 2019 journal paper, these regimes have shifted toward ‘informational autocracies’, making a determined effort to convince their citizens of a false narrative that they are competent stewards of the public interest, delivering stability and economic growth.

In such a scenario, the application of sanctions merely provides a pretext for these vulnerable leaders to blame poor economic performance on the actions of foreign enemies, rather than on their own mismanagement.

A recent guest of our podcast, Professor Timothy Frye of Columbia University in New York, explained that Western thinking on Eurasia can’t see the wood for the trees.

‘There’s no doubt that there are lots of differences across autocracies,’ he told me. ‘Autocracy is a capacious term and we need to be clear about it. There are one-party autocracies, there are military autocracies, and then there is this group of personalist autocracies. And among this latter group we see a lot of common patterns, for example the unwillingness to give up power and to step down, in part because the risks of stepping down in these personalist autocracies are much greater than in one-party or military autocracies.’

As there is no one-size-fits-all authoritarian state, there should also be no uniform response to every case.

How Europe responds to the outrageous conduct of Lukashenko should be quite different from how we address attacks on civilian populations in Cameroon or Uganda, or restrictions on civil rights in Hong Kong.

At the moment, however, the West reaches too quickly for the blunt tool of sanctions, or the threat of military intervention.

It is time for us to upgrade our language regarding the wide variety of non-Western states and force ourselves to think more critically, better understand nuance, and work harder on coming up with solutions that will be more effective in deterring somebody like Lukashenko from believing he can get away with pulling commercial aircraft out of the sky to pursue his enemies. It may not always be simple, but it can be done.

Robert Amsterdam is the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners LLP
The podcast Departures with Robert Amsterdam is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and elsewhere
Photo:  Alexandros Michailidis/shutterstock

More from Robert Amsterdam

Robert Amsterdam: What Google searches and headlines won’t tell you about the reality of geopolitics

The US has become a net exporter of instability

A ‘complete rethink’ of the fight against global corruption is needed

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